Monday, February 12, 2007

Search for Northern Pygmy-Owls in Larimer County

February 10, 2007

Paul Hudson and I started out in the fog at 4:30am this morning. Target birds were Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northern Goshawk, Northern Shrike, and Pinyon Jays. Winds were quite strong all day; temperatures probably did not reach the middle 40s.

Before sunrise we walked Grandview Cemetery in Fort Collins for about an hour or so. This once was my favorite and first location to look for accipiters for the year. Ah, the good old days when I could see a Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, and Northern Goshawk all in the same area. And as an added bonus, pick up a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for my Colorado year list.

The cemetery was not birdy this morning. A few House Finches, Black-capped Chickadees, and Mountain Chickadees were just about all we found. We did hear a few Pine Siskins fly by, but they did not even stop.

The Fort Collins City Park Duck Pond (across the golf course from the cemetery) was full of geese. Unfortunately only Canada Geese and the usual hybrids attracted to city parks.

We next headed into the foothills and looked for Snow Buntings (or any birds) along the shore at Horsetooth Reservoir (CR 38E, west of the city). Again we found few birds? We scoped the gully where David Leatherman had reported a Northern Pygmy-Owl last week (where Spring Creek crosses under CR 38E). Great potential, no birds.

Our trip continued down (west) Larimer CR 38E to CR 27 and Masonville. We drove over to Bobcat Ridge Natural Area. Again no birds, Pinyon Jays have been reported in the area in the past. Great potential, great habitat, few birds.

When this is finally opened to the public, it is going to be a great birding area to explore. Paul and I had missed Pinyon Jays here back in August, 2006. We enjoyed a short walk at sunset. Dozens of Turkey Vultures roosted on the cliffs above. Bullock's Orioles fluttered about in the cottonwoods. Empidonax Flycatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Chickadees were common. We enjoyed the long drive through the valley (at the time the main entrance was closed due to a collapsed road). The detour offers a more interesting drive and exploration of the valley.

We returned to CR 27 and drove south, picked up Highway 34 and headed west toward Estes Park. We stopped at David Leatherman’s second Northern Pygmy-Owl spot (mile marker 78). Here we had some success in that we heard a Northern Pygmy-Owl call at least four times over our hour stay. Unfortunately, we were not able to pick out the small owl in the cluster of firs. We did see a few Townsend's Solitaires and Chickadees. The drive up Thompson Canyon is an intriguing and splendid one.

Winds were outrageous in Estes Park. We drove north on Devils Gulch Road hoping to find a Northern Shrike hunting along the narrow fields (outlined with barbed wire fences). Once we entered the forest near Glen Haven, we turned back figuring Northern Shrikes would not be in that habitat.

A hike around the northern and eastern side of Lake Estes was also not successful in finding a Northern Shrike. A few Common Goldeneyes were out on the lake. Winds were so strong, that few in any birds were flying around. Crows and Ravens were blown by us.

We hiked quite a bit of Fish Creek Road between Highway 7 and Highway 36. The willows along Fish Creek (I am assuming that is the name of the creek, hence the road name) have sometimes produced Northern Pygmy-Owl and Northern Shrike sightings. Today we found dozens of noisy Steller's Jays and Black-billed Magpies.

We found ourselves with many hours to kill before meeting up with Scott Rashid (in hopes of seeing the Northern Pygmy-Owl that has been visiting his yard). So we headed down Highway 36 toward Lyons.

Finally, an adult Northern Shrike was perched atop a willow in the field near Meadowview Subdivision. Paul walked down the road closer to the willow and the Northern Shrike was nice enough to fly to a fence post even closer to Paul. It put on a nice show in the next 10 minutes. Turning forward and back, allowing great views of its face mask and hooked bill. It flicked its wings several times, showing the contrast between its upper rump and back!

North of Lyons, we drove the Spring Gulch Area for several hours hoping to run into a flock of Pinyon Jays. We did not. Winds were again strong, but we thought we would be able to hear the loud nasal “waoow” calls a flock seems to constantly make. No success, again we found few birds.

Across Highway 36, the loop that Apple Valley Road makes is another fascinating birding location. This small group of trees and brush along North St. Vrain Creek attracts some nice birds including Northern Pygmy-Owls and Northern Goshawks, just not today for us.

Back in Estes Park, we found ourselves with still two hours to kill before our meeting. We drove to the end of Highway 66 (past the YMCA of the Rockies). West of the Estes Park Campground there is a small reservoir (I believe it is called East Portal, could be wrong).

We hiked around this lake which in spite of the altitude was not frozen (because of the strong currents). Lone female Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye swam back and forth. Forest to the south and an open field to the north, great habitat for a Northern Goshawk to hunt in the late afternoon, just not today.

A walk through the campgrounds did not find any birds either. Some deer scat and tracks that were either Mountain Lion or dog (got to look them up one of these days).

Finally we met up with Scott. Winds died down after sunset and there was hope that “his” Northern Pygmy-Owl would show. He feeds him mice after it shows. You would pass up a free meal? Sometimes the owl shows up for days in a row; sometimes it skips a few days. Unfortunately, it did not appear for us this evening.

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